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In October 1928, when the Fox Theater first opened its doors in Oakland, CA, thousands came to experience Hollywood's newest innovation: talking films. Audiences for Howard Hawks's The Air Circus and an accompanying live stage show found themselves inside an enormous, dazzling fantasy palace. The buff brick and terra-cotta building was a lively collision of Moorish, Indian, Medieval and Baghdadian influences, with a massive polychrome dome, endless decorative plaster and paint, wood graining, gilding and even a pair of statues, which everyone called the "Buddhas," flanking the stage.
The Fox was a popular first-run movie theater for more than 30 years, but the growth of television in the early 1960s and the emergence of suburban malls drained off its audiences, and the Fox closed its doors in 1966. The building endured arson damage in 1973 and dodged efforts to replace it with a parking lot in 1975. It was named a city landmark in 1978 and was purchased by Erma and Mario DeLucchi who hoped to restore it. They were unable to work on it, and the Fox continued to suffer neglect, water damage and vandalism. By the time the city bought the building in 1996, the deterioration was extensive, from the rain-ravaged ceiling to the mushrooms growing on the floors.
Oakland native Phil Tagami, managing partner of California Commercial Investments, had bought and restored other old buildings in the city, and he made the Fox into a local cause. The Friends of the Oakland Fox was formed in 1998 as a subcommittee of the Oakland Heritage Alliance, and Tagami and his associates kept raising awareness and funds. After a seemingly endless stream of public hearings, community meetings and governmental red tape, the restoration of the Fox Theater began.
The process started in 2003 with a design concept by the Berkeley-based ELS Architecture and Urban Design, which served as historic architect on the project. The lead architect was Architectural Dimensions, based in nearby Walnut Creek, CA. Founded in 1981 by its president Jim Heilbronner, the firm had also worked with Phil Tagami on the 2000 renovation of Oakland's Rotunda Building. "I've known Phil over 20 years," says Heilbronner, "and his role is unique in bringing a project into the real world, politically and financially. The technical side is a whole other animal," he adds. "Blending those two together is the challenge."
Seismic improvement was also a big part of the project. "It ate up the first six or eight months of construction and involved new foundations, new piers that were drilled and had to go deep," says Heilbronner. The firm responsible for the structural engineer and seismic retrofitting was Hratch Kouyoumdjian & Associates, San Francisco.
Balancing the budget and dealing with agencies were the project's biggest ongoing challenges. "The most stressful thing was the budget," explains Heilbronner. "There were a lot of unknowns going into the building, which meant change orders and surprises that can quickly exceed your contingency budget. You're always trying to look ahead to where you're going to be in three months, six months, a year, as you take on new challenges. We had to manage the design issues of historic preservation against the realities of the budget to do those types of things."
Another major hurdle concerned the task of integrating new technology into a building that was not designed to accommodate it: Information-technology systems, a Ticketmaster ordering system, a scanning system that's Wi-Fi, TV communication and video communication throughout – all had to be integrated into the building. There is also a security system and a point-of-sales system, as well as a beer-distribution system that goes to all the new bars that were added. "Besides incorporating these sophisticated systems, we also had to attend to all the ADA-compliance issues," says Heilbronner. "We conduited the theater so that there is very minimal wiring exposed – it's all hidden in troughs and conduits."
Another huge issue was the interior decorative painting and plaster. This job went to EverGreene Architectural Arts. Company president and owner Jeff Greene recalls his first glimpse of the decaying Fox: "It was in terrible condition! The whole ceiling is cast plaster, and there were holes where the water had dripped through the ceiling and actually cut through the plaster."
"Our concern was that the ceiling's hanging system might have been compromised, but we found out that the material itself was sound," he says. "There wasn't any horrendous rot or loose connections." What they found instead was places where the water had cut a hole in the plaster, yet six inches away the plaster was sound. The EverGreene artists determined that they could re-hang, stabilize and consolidate the ceiling, and then make localized repairs. "This was very fortunate," says Greene. "Otherwise it would have cost an arm and a leg."
Rescuing the Fox's endless painted surfaces was another major focus. According to Greene, "The questions there were: Could it be cleaned? Did they want to clean it? What would it look like?" EverGreene did a paint analysis, looking at the colors under a microscope to determine what the original colors were and how they had been altered – where they were changed, where they had been painted over – as well as where they were original and extant, and where they could be cleaned.
The ground-floor lobby and the mezzanine lobby were largely just cleaned and touched up and the ceiling was put back to its original color palette with 14 different colors.
The special challenge of this undertaking for the artisans of EverGreene was the sheer size of the Fox Theater. "The physical work itself probably took about six months, and the gilding, stenciling, cleaning and conservation were all pretty straightforward, Greene notes, "but they went on and on and on and on for acres!"
"With any project that mammoth, the logistics are the hard part," says Greene. An EverGreene crew headed up by foreperson Sherry Thomas went through the job methodically, taking care of everything and following the sequence that was dictated by the rest of the construction.
A further complication to this already massive project was the Oakland School for the Arts (OSA), which adjoins the Fox. "The theater itself is in the center of a large unattractive box," Heilbronner explain. On three sides, in the form of a U, were two three-story office buildings that surround it, which were originally leased out to independent tenants from the theater.
Two wings were added on to that perimeter space and two one-story retail spaces were gutted so a new three-story wood-frame school could be added. This was done without damaging the historic façade of the old one-story terra-cotta building.
The OSA's entrances and exits are also completely independent of the theater. Architectural Dimensions worked closely with Starkweather Bondy, the architecture firm for the school. "It turned out very well," says Heilbronner. "The school has blossomed and is operating at its capacity, with some 500-plus students, all in the performing arts."
The OSA is not the only thing that has blossomed: On February 5, 2009, the Fox Theater reopened its doors and began its new life as a live-music venue with a flexible capacity of 1,500 to 2,800 people and state-of-the-art sound systems, along with new heating, air conditioning, mechanical and electrical systems, as well as improved restrooms.
Located in the demographic center of California's densely populated Bay Area, the Fox Theater has helped revitalize Oakland and now serves as an anchor for a burgeoning entertainment district of theaters, restaurants and clubs. Heilbronner notes with justifiable pride that the reborn Fox has been "very successful at prompting new development downtown and collecting new restaurants and bars. There's been an amazing transition since the Fox reopened."
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